The Drama of Sidekicks

Recently, I saw Sweeney Todd - the Johnny Depp/Helena Bonham Carter version. It was okay. I prefer the Len Cariou/Angela Lansbury version from the stage, but then, I almost always prefer the original versions of most musicals. I'm a sap that way.

But the movie version of Sweeney Todd got me thinking about the role of (and risk of) sidekicks in stories. In case you haven't seen either version, Sweeney Todd is the story of ... Sweeney Todd (I know - you're shocked). He used to be married and have a baby, but then a judge fell in love with his wife and had him sent to prison in Australia. The musical begins when he returns to seek his revenge on the judge. Upon his return, he meets Mrs. Lovett, the proprietress of a meat pie shop, who remembers Todd from before he left. The two form an unlikely partnership when Todd kills someone who threatens his plan of revenge, and Mrs. Lovett bakes the victim into meat pies. Yes, that's right - it's a heart warming musical about murder and cannibalism. (Sondheim, man. What can I say?)

Anyway, the movie highlighted for me that Sweeney Todd is, for me, really the sad story of Mrs. Lovett. Although Todd is the title character and the protagonist, she's the one I care about. See, she's in love with Todd, and has been since before he left, which is why she gets involved in his scheme. (She's also not a very nice person, which I don't think is a surprise, given that she bakes people in MEAT PIES, but her overarching motivation is devotion to Todd.) Her determination to do whatever she can to please Todd and help him is the really sympathetic journey for me. Todd's just killing people out of bitterness and if he's not played correctly, he can be a little one-note -- yes, yes, revenge, you kill people, yadda yadda yadda. But Mrs. Lovett is in love with someone who doesn't love her back, and who does adore that story?

See, that's the thing about a sidekick -- done right, a sidekick's story can keep someone interested in the story when their interest in the protagonist lags. Without Mrs. Lovett in Sweeney Todd, I would have bored to tears (assuming I sat through the damn thing). A sidekick that has her (or his) own personal drama, adds a layer to the story and makes it feel more real.

But sidekicks are also dangerous, in the way that Mrs. Lovett is dangerous. To me, she takes over Sweeney Todd. She's the funny one, she's the charming one, she's the one I'm rooting for. Unfortunately, given the conflict that's set up in the musical, both she and Todd can't win. Thus, since the musical isn't called "Mrs. Lovett and the Meat Pies", she loses. And therefore, I never like the ending of the musical.

When I write, I often have to be careful of this happening. In The Book, one of the secondary characters has his own little journey that showed up out of the blue a couple of drafts ago. The good news is that, unlike Mrs. Lovett's journey, this character's journey doesn't have to fail for main character S to succeed. But I can't even count the number of scenes I've had to cut to keep it from taking over parts of the book.

Why is that? Why do writers sometimes talk about secondary characters taking over the story? How do they do it? At least for me, it's because I'm less afraid to take risks with secondary characters. They aren't the stars, so there's less work to do if I go down the wrong path with a sidekick. Also, sidekicks only show up in glimpses, the tips of character icebergs floating above the surface of the narrative. So it's up to the reader to create the sidekick's story in some sense, to piece it together from the fragments the author provides, which is always fun. In some ways, the protagonist is like a steady boyfriend, who I love and enjoy, but whose jokes I already know, and the sidekick is the mysterious stranger across the room.


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